Purple hair pointed like a demon's.
Disclaimer: Be warned, this retro will include extremely un-academic, thoroughly adolescent colloquialisms like “cool”, “awesome” and “bad-ass”, because Oni is the type of game that’s simply impossible to describe without using them.
I have fond memories of the halcyon days at the turn of the millennium when my internet connection would shriek at me like a tortured soul. This was back in the days when Bungie were on the tail-end of producing games exclusively for the Mac, with Marathon having been good enough to even challenge the supremacy of Doom. It was on my fruity coloured first generation iMac that I first played a stylish anime-inspired game called Oni. Immediately, Oni barraged my young mind with a high velocity blast of frantic techno music, insane martial arts moves and a plot featuring more secrets and deception than Tony Blair being a contestant on Would I Lie to You?
It was Oni, along with games like Deus Ex and films like Ghost in the Shell that introduced me to that irresistible cyberpunk cool that would become a lifetime obsession.
Oni focuses on Konoko, an agent of the TCTF, a law enforcement arm of the world government in a dystopian future world where Earth is wracked by environmental devastation. She’s on the hunt for The Syndicate, a terrorist organisation led by a familiar looking purple-haired villian called Muro. In true cyberpunky tradition though, Konoko is also being lied to by her superiors, and through unveiling secrets about her employers and her past, she becomes a rebel on a search for the truth.
Oni‘s story was a wonderful combination of fast-paced and nuanced. It never stops hitting you with action and revelations, but the characters have conflicted motivations and well-developed backgrounds. Also, most importantly, Oni is a perfect distillation of the best of classic 80s and 90s anime. Konoko’s handler and closest friend is a pink-haired android called Shinatama, with the body of a young girl and a personality seemingly the personification of innocence. Konoko’s Machiavellian TCTF boss is Commander Griffin, whose paranoia drives him to the brink of insanity. These two characters are the angel and devil on Konoko’s shoulders as she fights robotic ninjas and mutated troopers. The interplay between them creates, for my money, one of the most heartrending choices in gaming during Oni‘s final act.
Watching Oni’s story unfold gave me the same giddy thrill of staying up till 2am to watch Patlabor or Bubblegum Crisis on the Sci-Fi channel’s anime nights. It gave me the same excitement of watching a rocking Manga UK trailer on a clunky VHS tape before the “feature presentation” of Dominion Tank Police. It’s anime at its best: a trip into a dazzlingly colourful and completely unique world.
Konoko herself was inspired by Ghost in the Shell protagonist Major Motoko Kusanagi. Of course, Konoko was far more impetuous and spunky than the more ponderous Major. With a push of the taunt button, she’d give a magnificent laugh or tell her enemies about how they’re about to get beat by a girl. Her novel way of dealing with a suicide bomber in one of the early levels was to throw him off a tower, through multiple glass skylights, and onto a fortified enemy position below. She also looks sexier in leather and shades than anyone in The Matrix, and is audacious enough to scream out her most powerful attacks before making them.
Konoko could stealthily creep up on guards and perform devastating mexican-surfboard backbreakers, each of which came with a satisfying crunch of snapping shoulder-blades.
Just as Konoko was a risk-taking, rule-breaking bad-ass, Oni’s gameplay was just as fast and loose. Looking back, it’s amazing just how free you were in Oni. Konoko could stealthily creep up on guards and perform devastating mexican-surfboard backbreakers, each of which came with a satisfying crunch of snapping shoulder-blades. She could attack multiple enemies at once, turning a running neckbreaker into an insane 360 degree air-walk spin kick. Judo-throwing enemies off skyscrapers was always a favourite of mine.
Gunplay was just as much a factor in Oni’s fights as hand to hand combat (or foot to face combat for many of Konoko’s opponents). A wide variety of weapons were available to Konoko and her adversaries, from standard pistols and sub-machine guns, all the way to crazy armaments including missile launchers that fill the air with a swarm of homing rockets at a time, and frozen mercury lightning guns that fire with a satisfying crackle.
What made fights especially exciting and unpredictable was how both Konoko and any other character could pick up any weapon in the game. Not only would you need to watch the flying fists of the bad guys and gals around you, you’d need to disarm them too. When fighting the first real boss of the game, the mutated Barbaras, you can actually pick up his massive railgun and use it against him. I was simply flabbergasted at the time, actually asking myself “is this game really going to let me do something this awesome?”. When I blasted Barbaras in the face with a blinding burst of lazery death, I couldn’t help but give a satisfied nod.
Chaotic brawls with no fixed outcome were common in Oni. Even during the game’s training prologue, you’d witness a fight between one of Konoko’s fellow agents and a couple automated training dummies. Sometimes, the agent would get beaten up, sometimes the dummies would. Likewise, Konoko often gets into group fights alongside allies who can either hold their own or get their bio-augmented butts handed to them. One of the first levels, you can either keep your fellow TCTF officers safe (allowing them to do a pose and give a hilariously smug “area secured!”) or simply let them be cannon fodder as you sneak up on your enemies unawares. Being a thorough goody-two-shoes, I’d often restart levels to save hapless civilians and allies from getting pummeled. Instead of getting bored replaying the same parts though, Oni’s battles were so unpredictable it was always a joy to see all the different outcomes a skirmish could have.
Heck, even the way Oni dealt with its health mechanic was cool. Konoko could use hypo-sprays to replenish her health circle (because Oni was just too awesome to have a bog-standard horizontal health bar). However, there was a substantial chunk of the circle that could only be filled temporarily to put Konoko into Overdrive mode, giving her increased damage. It was a careful balance of risk and reward whether you wanted to save the precious hypos until Konoko was ailing, or use them to give her an offensive boost.
What really stuck out in my mind about Oni’s combat was how you were actually doing awesome things. You weren’t simply waiting for a button prompt to watch an animation of your character doing something awesome. If you wanted to do a somersaulting leap onto a platform to grab a hidden ammo pack, hurricanrana a Syndicate Striker into a group of his friends or cartwheel back into cover after blasting away with your sub-machine gun, you’d have to time it yourself. The emphasis of the game was exactly where it should be: on risk, skill and creativity.
Oni’s gameplay generously offered a paradigm for third person games that was not subsequently adopted. What ended up becoming the third person formula was a mix of Gears of War and Assassin’s Creed, where leaping between rooftops is as simple as holding down a button, and you spend most firefights planting your back against a waist high wall with magical healing properties.
Now, I might very well sound like an old fogey as I advance into my late twenties: having been wrongly prescribed rose tinted nostalgia goggles to help with my cataracts. However, I’ll admit Oni certainly wasn’t perfect. Great as it was, it didn’t live up to the massive hype.
Oni wasn’t as well received in its time because of not delivering on many of its promises regarding AI, the “iron demon” boss battle and a multiplayer mode. It had a troubled and overly long development cycle that resulted in most of the publicity for the game being built up two years before it was actually released. There was even a mysterious character called Casey who appears in the intro movie and a few of the game over screens, despite not actually being a character in the game (his role having been seemingly excised entirely). Thanks to a dedicated modding community though, Oni’s multiplayer mode is being resurrected, as are many lost assets missing from the game on release. Even today, there are plenty of die-hard fans who can look past Oni’s woes on release to see what the game really represented.
Oni represented a vibrant anime style perfectly realised, and gameplay that was an open book, with the player the author of the coolest moments. It represented a time when Bungie were a studio whose every game was an ambitious gamble, and they were prepared to take chances with more than just Activision’s money. If you’ve never played Oni, you owe it to yourself to find a copy and experience a game that hits you with the same force as a bio-engineered purple-haired woman screaming “Rising Fury!” as she launches an shock-wave creating uppercut into the air.